Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dolphins vs Jets Preview:

Week 17 here at last, and what an anti-climactic end this could shape up to be for the New York Jets.

For weeks now, it had been clear that if the Jets and Miami Dolphins took care of business, this game could mean the division. Unfortunately, the Jets choked down the stretch, so they are on the outside looking in at the playoff picture for the first time in months.

Jets fans, root like hell for the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars. If the Bills beat the New England Patriots at 1:00, the winner of the Dolphins-Jets game will take the division. If the Patriots beat Buffalo as they have done in 15 of their last 16 meetings, then you face the nightmare scenario of either winning the division for the Patriots or the Dolphins. But if Jacksonville upsets the Baltimore Ravens at 4:15, the Jets will sneak into the playoffs as the #6 seed, with a date against the Patriots in New England upcoming. Since the Ravens game is the same time as the Jets game, there is no way Gang Green will be eliminated by gametime.

Even if the Jets get unlikely help, they will need to beat Miami, and the way they have played in the past month, it will be a tall order. Miami is a far better team than Denver, San Francisco, Buffalo, and Seattle, the Jets' last four opponents who have all outplayed them.

The key to Miami's season has been ball control. Chad Pennington leads an offense that has committed just 12 turnovers all season long. If they don't turn the ball over in Sunday's game, they will tie the single-season low set by the 1982 Kansas City Chiefs. That has enabled Miami to win a lot of close games this season, including their last four and eight of their last nine.

This is not the same Dolphins team that the Jets faced in week one. It's not the same Jets team either; who knows what Jets team will come out on Sunday. Looking back at the week one game, the Jets scored two of their three touchdowns on blown coverages. Those mental errors simply do not happen anymore for Miami in their recent hot streak.

Pennington is the biggest change personnel-wise for the offense, and he has been everything Miami could have asked for. Comparisons with Brett Favre are inevitable, and the former Jet has clearly outplayed Favre this season, especially when you look at the receivers he has to throw to.

Ted Ginn Jr. and Davone Bess are the starting wide receivers now that Greg Camarillo is out for the season. Ginn was the Dolphins' first-round pick last year, and while he has made some big plays this season both running and receiving, he is not a well-rounded receiver yet. Bess is an undrafted rookie from Hawaii who has emerged as the number one threat. Anthony Fasano and David Martin also see plenty of looks from the tight end position.

Miami's offense became famous for popularizing the wildcat offense, and while it's still there in packages, they run a more conventional offense now. The running game is still the bread and butter though. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams split the carries, and both have been very effective. The two have combined for 1468 yards on the ground, and both are threats out of the backfield in the passing game as well.

For the Jets to be able to stop the Dolphins' offense, they will need to stop the run. After being one of the elite run-stopping units for 11 games, they have really fallen off in the last quarter of the season. Kris Jenkins hasn't been nearly the dominant force he was at the beginning of the season, probably as a result of the constant pounding his body takes at the 3-4 nose tackle.

The pass-defense has been mediocre at best all season long, and while the Dolphins don't have many big-name weapons, Pennington has been able to use the short-passing game to his advantage, spreading the ball around to whatever receiver happens to be open. The Jets leave plenty of receivers open, though they did play better last week against a bad Seattle offense. Turnovers will likely be few and far between, so the Jets will simply need to outplay the Miami offense if they will want to make some stops.

On the other side of the ball, Favre may be making the last start of his career. Of course, people have said this many games before, but that's far from most Jets fans' minds. If he doesn't play better this week, fans might not even want him back. His receivers and tight ends haven't helped him a whole lot recently, but there have been far too many poorly thrown passes. The underthrown deep ball to an open David Clowney that fell incomplete last week may have been the most important play in last week's game.

Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery need to step up their play and gain some separation. Cotchery had 80 yards in the first matchup, including a 56-yard touchdown, but Coles had just one catch for five yards.

Their task could be made a little easier as Dolphins' starting cornerback Will Allen is listed as questionable and may not play. The Dolphins are 27th in the NFL in pass-defense, so they are vulnerable through the air. If the Jets want to win this game, they need to take advantage with their passing game. There are no excuses anymore.

Thomas Jones and Leon Washington (in far too limited touches) have both had great seasons, and most of the offensive success Gang Green has had has come on the ground. Jones had over 100 yards in the first matchup, but Miami only allows 4.2 yards-per-carry. Starting middle linebacker Channing Crowder is also questionable and might miss the game, so that may hurt the defense. As a result, Jones and Washington will likely receive heavy work, trying to take pressure off Favre.

But the other reason the Jets will try to establish the run is the presence of one of the most dominant pass-rushers in football. Joey Porter has had a resurgent season, posting a jaw-dropping 18 sacks with four forced fumbles. The Jets will try a number of different ways to stop Porter, but an effective running game is the best medicine.

Predicting this game is extremely difficult. Judging by the last month of play, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a reason why the Jets will win. But New York owns the Dolphins, and the Jets will surely want to end their fairy tale in Giants Stadium.

However, they should have been motivated in Seattle. And in San Francisco. And at home against Denver and Buffalo.

But no one knows Pennington like the Jets. And no one knows how to beat Miami like the Jets. I just can't bring myself to pick Pennington and the Dolphins to win this game. Call it a hunch, call it my Jets bias, or whatever you want, but I say the Jets pull this one out.

Jets 20, Dolphins 17

But will it matter? Only if New England or Baltimore loses.

The Patriots completely own the Bills, but the quarterback in most of the recent matchups has been Tom Brady. This is the most pressurized situation Matt Cassel has ever played in, and the Bills are still playing hard. They should have beaten the Jets two weeks ago, and they upset the Broncos in a game that Denver needed to have to prevent a do-or-die week 17. I think Buffalo will give New England everything it's got, but at the end of the day, I think New England comes up with just enough to put itself in position to make the playoffs. 24-21 Patriots.

Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco and head coach John Harbaugh are also going into their biggest NFL games. However, the key to the Ravens has always been their defense. The Jaguars haven't shown up to play every week, and Baltimore will punch them in the mouth. The Jaguars almost played spoiler to the Colts last Thursday night, but the Ravens are an entirely different animal. One thing that goes in Jacksonville's favor is that they have three extra days to prepare for this game, but with their season in the tank, it might not matter. Rest won't stop Willis McGahee, Ray Rice, and LeRon McClain. If Jacksonville can get a lead early, they have a chance, but if not, the Ravens could pour it on and M&T Bank Stadium could be one massive celebration. 28-17 Ravens.

So at the end of the day, I don't think the Jets will make it. A legitimate case can be made for a Buffalo upset, but would you bet against Bill Bellichick with his season on the line? I certainly wouldn't.

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